If you've ever hiked in spring in Wisconsin, you know what it is to slip, slide and fall into icy mud. But taking steps to ensure a good time hiking in the spring can be as easy as planning when to go.
Tim Malzhan, director of trail operations for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, has advice about good practices and good places for hiking this spring.
"The IATA decidedly encourages people to use the IAT and enjoy springtime in Wisconsin," says Malzhan - with a caveat. "Muddy March is not a myth, and we encourage people to exercise good judgment when trail conditions are sloppy."
Malzhan suggests hiking earlier in the day when possible. Trails usually will have hardened overnight, and what was a muddy mess the previous day will be much more solid. He also asks hikers to stay on the main trail tread and not create new routes by going around tough areas.
I've found that two gear upgrades are also essential. First, hiking spikes aren't optional. While there are many to pick from, Kahtoola MICROspikes are angelic. They are composed of half-inch fangs linked by chains that attach to boots by a thick rubber band. They allow the wearer to trot easily over ice, and they'll grab loose mud, creating less trail damage and making slick spots easily passable.
Next, a hiking stick is helpful. Malzhan goes old school, using a bamboo staff corked at either end. Nice. New school includes fiberglass with sharp metal tips that dig into ice and mud, built-in shock absorption and adjustable lengths.
Spring hiking also brings wardrobe challenges. Dress in layers and hike with a pack to store the layers after you shed them. This will also keep them dry until you put them back on as late-day temps dip. Waterproof boots are great - but any good, supportive boot is really the key. As Malzhan says, "Shoes and socks will dry."
Not to sound too parental, but you'll definitely want water with you. Spring hiking is deceiving. The first 50-degree day will feel like July once you get moving.
While fall is most often associated with hunting, turkey hunting is in full swing in spring, with various seasons from April 6 to May 21. So be mindful of your surroundings.
Now, where to go to put these concepts to the test? Here's a handful of springtime hikes on the Ice Age Trail, all within minutes of Madison.
1. The Table Bluff segment features a rolling, out-and-back five-mile hike with gorgeous views high atop a goat prairie at the turnaround. Park at the trailhead off Table Bluff Road a couple miles northwest of Cross Plains. Trailhead: 43 8'38.62"N, 8940'13.03"W.
2. The Brooklyn segment offers some of the best long-distance hiking near Madison through oak woods along a long, serpentine stretch of the glacier's terminal moraine. In total, this section covers about seven miles out and back and is moderately hilly. Several parking lots along County Hwy. D just east of Belleville means you can cover more or less ground, as you want. (Note: this segment passes through the 2,100-acre Brooklyn State Wildlife Area, where hunting is permitted.) This trailhead coordinate is the southernmost. Trailhead: 4250'33.30"N, 8929'57.07"W.
3. The Montrose segment is a beautiful section just north of Brooklyn and is not part of the hunting area. There's good vertical climbing here, and it makes for a wonderful five-mile out-and-back from the new trailhead parking lot off Frenchtown Road, just south of Paoli. A good turnaround is to loop around the prairie about two miles in, then head back. Trailhead: 4253'34.22"N, 8930'29.48"W.
4. Indian Lake County Park has a couple of nice climbs. The outermost "red loop," which includes the Ice Age Trail, is about 4.5 miles. The main park entrance is off Highway 19, about 10 miles northwest of Middleton. Trailhead: 4311'21.97"N, 8937'16.42"W.
5. The Verona segment is one of the longest local passages, from Prairie Moraine Park (off County Hwy. PB) through University Ridge Golf Course, covering 10 miles (interrupted only by road crossings). Starting at the Military Ridge park and ride lot, just off 18/151, there's a rather level section that rambles along Badger Mill Creek; this makes for a nice, tranquil hike. Heading north from the lot, under a paved underpass, the trail goes through Badger Prairie County Park and into the Ice Age Junction Area, a county park with 200 acres of restored prairie. Looping around this prairie and returning to the trailhead makes a good five-mile hike. Trailhead: 4259'36.12"N, 8930'51.37"W.